Unlike every other international border in the American mainland, it’s not possible to cross overland between Panama and Colombia (except illegally, and even then I’m not sure if it’s doable). There’s a land border, of course (it’s the skinny bit where Central America joins South America); but it’s located right in the middle of a complete wilderness, with no roads and hardly any people – the Darién Gap.
This vast, roadless, virtually uninhabited tract of rainforest is so devoid of people and their infrastructure that it’s become famous as one of the most pristine natural environments in the world, its biodiversity making it a UNESCO World Heritage site. Home to indigenous tribes living in the jungle much as they’ve done for centuries, and hundreds of species of animals and plants, it would be an amazing place to visit. Were it not for the fact that much of it is impenetrable jungle. Even the Pan-American Highway, La Interamericana, doesn’t pass through the Darién, having the only break (100 km) in its 50,000 km journey from Alaska to Argentina.
Oh, and also, the Darién is also home to various nefarious groups who pass through it, or are based in it – drug traffickers, smugglers, paramilitaries, left-wing guerrilla groups (like Colombia’s FARC), and various terrorists, thieves, and murderers. So, if the jungle doesn’t get you, they probably will.
So that leaves two options. I can fly – there are non-stop flights from Panama City to various places in Colombia. And for lovers of puddle-jumping, you can fly from Panama City to Puerto Obaldia (the last town on Panama’s Caribbean coast), and then hire a boat to take you down the coast (and across the border) to Sapzurro (the first town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast). But both of those options miss out on the famous (and beautiful) San Blás islands, which are strung out along Panama’s Caribbean coast.
So I decide to open door number two, and book myself on a five-day sailing trip to Cartagena, which includes two days on the open sea. I was going to book a shorter trip that sailed closer to the coast and ended in Sapzurro (thus avoiding the open sea crossing, and passing through more of the islands); but the people at San Blás Adventures (the company who arrange this tour) never answered any of my emails. So screw them – seasickness and Cartagena, here we come.
There are dozens of boats that do this crossing in both directions throughout the year, and handily, there are several hostel-based travel agencies in Panama City that arrange the trips. After doing my research, selecting my boat (based on boat size and departure date), and paying my deposit, I’m picked up in Panama City at an unreasonably early hour (it’s still dark outside!) for a drive across the country to the coastal village of Cartí, in the Kuna Yala territory.
The Spanish named the San Blás islands, stretching 200 km from Cartí to the Colombian border. But the local people who inhabit them (the Kuna) prefer the term Kuna Yala. They were the first indigenous people in Latin America to gain any sort of autonomy, and despite having had contact with Europeans since Columbus sailed by in 1502, they still cling tenaciously to their traditional way of life.
There are nearly 400 islands, but the majority of the Kuna live on just 40 of them, leaving the rest inhabited by nothing more than palm trees and crabs (although every island, and everything on them, is owned by one Kuna family or another). The rest of the Kuna live on the nearby mainland, where they grow rice, yucca, and fruit, to supplement their fish diet. But the one crop that’s king in Kuna-land is the coconut. So common are they, and so valuable, that they were once used as currency, and even now, the price of coconuts is set by the Kuna every year, to prevent price wars! The Kuna sell (or trade) up to 30 million of them every year to Colombian and Panamanian traders. So it seems money does grow on trees. In an attempt to preserve their culture, they forbid foreigners from owning any of the islands or marrying any of the locals. And they don’t allow Panamanian Coast Guard and US vessels in their waters, making the many uninhabited islands popular with Colombian cocaine traffickers.
After meeting the captain (Mike from Cartagena), the crew (his son and nephew), and the rest of the passengers (there are only five of us), we have breakfast, do a tour of the boat (it’s a small boat, so it’s a quick tour!), get our passports stamped out of Panama, and sail off into paradise.
We spend the next three days passing through some of the loveliest tropical islands I’ve ever seen. If you were on a quest to find the perfect beach, these are the islands to do it in – hundreds of small scraps of land with nothing but white-sand beaches and swaying palm trees, surrounded by water that’s a brilliant turquoise (when seen from the boat) and crystal clear (when swimming and snorkelling in it).
There’s another boat doing the same trip as us at the same time, a large catamaran (as opposed to our small monohull) – but, unlike our five-person boat, they have at least twice as many passengers. Well, at least until the end of the first day, when an unfortunate accident occurs, and a girl dislocates her knee while clambering aboard from the dinghy. We drop anchor and stay here for the night, as the poor girl is taken back to the mainland and a Panama City hospital.
During the day, when we’re not in the boat sailing between islands, the only activities to do are wandering round the islands, snorkelling in the reefs, swimming, reading, and drinking rum. And eating. Lots of eating. Captain Mike trained as a chef (in Italy, no less), and cooks up a storm thrice daily in his boat’s tiny kitchen. The passengers on the catamaran are mostly younger backpackers, while ours are mostly older couples; and while the kids play beach volleyball, or unsuccessfully attempt to climb palm trees for the coconuts (I should chastise them for trying to steal the Kuna’s cash crop), I continue in my attempt to turn my body a shade of brown that would make Robert Kilroy-Silk or George Hamilton envious.
While most of the islands that we stop at are deserted, a few have families living on them (normally one family per island, living in a group of wood-and-thatch huts). The families may have some cabanas for rent, or a place where passing boat tourists like us can prepare and eat lunch, and maybe some handicrafts for sale. For the most part, the Kuna seem fairly ambivalent towards tourists – they certainly don’t rush out at us selling trinkets everywhere we dock, and the most hard selling we get is the occasional canoe pulling up alongside us to sell fresh lobsters and enormous fish. Having said that, they’re clearly canny business people – they run the tourism industry in the archipelago, they collect fees for every boat that lands on every island, and despite not having had a word for money, these days you can take photos of them, for a dollar apiece. While waiting for lunch one day, I strike up a conversation with the Kuna family on one of the islands. The men are out fishing, so it’s just the ladies; and while the younger ones are dressed in the standard Western attire of T-shirts and shorts, the matriarch is in her traditional Kuna clothes – hair tied up in a bright red headscarf, colourful blouse tucked into a sarong-like skirt, forearms and lower legs covered in numerous beaded bracelets, and an enormous golden ring through her nose.
She shows me the Molas that she makes for the tourists – the woven handicraft that comes from Kuna Yala and is now ubiquitous in Panama. A piece of fabric somewhere between a towel and a blouse, it’s made of coloured squares of fabric, sewn together into a mazelike, geometric pattern. As beautiful as they are, I don’t buy one, as I’ve no money, and the nearest ATM is a very long way away. And I don’t take any photos of the ladies and their products, as I don’t want to accidentally offend anyone who doesn’t like having their picture taken (I know I wouldn’t like having a camera shoved in my face in my own home, simply because I looked ‘exotic’); and also because, if I’m going to come all this way to see these incredible places and people, I’d much rather put the camera down, enjoy the moment, and maybe have a conversation that consisted of more than just “Can I take your picture?”. I spy one of my fellow tourists filming a something on the ground nearby (a crab perhaps?) with their iPad. She’s probably never even going to look at that video, she’ll just post it on Facebook and ask other people to watch it. I’m sorry, I’ll go somewhere quiet and calm down.
After three days, the lazy rhythm of swimming, sunbathing, and bonfires on the beach is over, and it’s time to say adiós to San Blás and the Kuna (and Panama, and Central America), and batten down the hatches (literally and figuratively) for the open water crossing to Cartagena and Colombia. Up until this point, it’s been smooth sailing, as the boat gently weaves between the islands, sheltered by the shallow reef. Now it’s going to be different. Depending on weather conditions, and the size and speed of your boat, this trip can be a one-day, smooth jaunt, or a two-day, stomach-churning ordeal. We, unfortunately, have more of the latter than the former. On the beginning of the first open water day, Captain Mike asks me, with uncharacteristic seriousness, if I have any seasickness pills with me; and when I confirm that I do, he orders me to take one immediately. And within an hour, we’ve left the safety of the reef and are heaving up and down on the several-metre-high waves. I have a reasonably strong constitution, and don’t normally get seasick; but I think that without those pills, I would’ve been heaving as much as the boat. Just getting around is physically difficult, climbing in and out of bed is a nightmare, and going to the bathroom virtually impossible.
For one day and one night this aquatic rollercoaster ride continues. Captain Mike and his crew have seen this all before, and they take turns sleeping, being on watch, and cooking (incredibly, they’re still able to knock up meals), while the autopilot steers the boat through the white horses. The rest of us either sit outside, hanging on for dear life, or lay in bed (also hanging on for dear life). Not being used to taking the pills, I’m zonked out by their side effects, and spend most of the time sleeping – except for one terrifying occasion, when there’s an almighty bang in the middle of the night, as the boat hits an enormous wave, jerks violently up and down, and I bounce out of bed and land on the floor several seconds later (a wet floor too, as the wave was big enough to go completely over the boat). I’m starting to wish I was on the bigger catamaran…
The following day, the sea’s calmed considerably. It’s actually possible for me to go outside without falling over, to get food into my mouth when eating, and to go to the toilet without throwing up or tiddling all over myself. And there’s even a pod of dolphins to accompany us part of the way. But still, the sea looks more scary and dangerous than the San Blás reef ever did (although the reefs pose their own dangers, being so shallow that they’re littered with shipwrecks). And with no land in sight in any direction, I feel very small out here. But finally, at the end of the day, just as it’s getting dark, we spot land. It’s Colombia’s Islas del Rosario, just off the Caribbean coast. And after another few hours motoring up the coast, we see the twinkling lights of Cartagena, one of the oldest (and grandest) Spanish cities in Latin America.
Once safely in the harbour, Captain Mike takes our passports to be stamped into the country (just like in Panama, the immigration people don’t seem to want to see us personally, or check our bags, or check the boat – but then who would be doing something so crazy as bringing drugs INTO Colombia?). And by bedtime, I’m lying in a still, stable bed, having had my first shower in five days, and having reached the end of my wonderful time in Central America.